Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival
Where: Epcot, Walt Disney World
When: Now through May 30
What: A sensory explosion of flowers, plants, food and drink, featuring dozens of elaborate topiaries of Disney characters, 19 special gardens (orchids, teas, bonsai, spices, you name it), 13 outdoor kitchens, the Garden Rocks concert series and more.
Cost: Epcot admission required. For Florida residents, that's $97 a day or $63 a day for a three-day Florida resident pass. Many special events are included, like the popular English Tea Garden Tour, but you must sign up early the same day at the Tea Caddy in the United Kingdom. Appetizer-size foods are around $5 to $7 each, and adult beverages are in the $7-$8 range.
For more information: Go to wdwinfo.com, disneyworld.disney.go.com and disneyfoodblog.com
Walt Disney wanted Epcot to be the utopian city of the future, and now, 50 years after he unveiled his vision, we know what utopia means:
It’s the place where you tiptoe through the topiaries while getting tipsy on peach Moscato.
At least that was my personal utopia last weekend, as I strolled and sipped through the sensory explosion that is the Epcot Flower & Garden Festival at Walt Disney World.
The 90-day event could be called the Flower & Garden & Gorging fest — that’s how much food and drink surrounds you.
Nowhere else does the scent of brisket, beer and blueberry cider merge with lavender, jasmine and rose.
To get the most out of the festival, just follow your nose.
The theme park is abloom in 30 million flowers, 100-plus topiaries, 19 “garden destinations” and 13 “outdoor kitchens” selling farm-fresh food and enough liquor to send you face-first into a flower bed.
Ever tried frozen lemonade with blackberry moonshine?
I’m sure there’s a garden angle in there somewhere — after all, lemons grow on trees.
How about a watermelon-cucumber slush with gin?
Or the classic — and, in my opinion, still the best — eat-with-a-spoon frozen booze concoction ever created, the pineapple soft-serve with coconut rum.
Oh, yes, there are flowers, too, glorious flowers. And a theme — “Fresh Epcot” — touting all the locally grown food.
There’s an English Tea Garden worthy of Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary.
And topiaries so astonishing, they’ll take your breath away faster than the moonshine.
My favorites: Beauty and the Beast at the France pavilion. The Beast has a sculpted face, but Belle’s face is just flora with no features. Hmmm. Maybe they’ll give her a face next year, like Snow White or Frozen’s Elsa and Anna topiaries.
Speaking of France, here is my favorite way to experience the festival:
Stay at one of the Epcot resorts, so you can walk from your hotel into the World Showcase entrance. The bakery in France opens at 9, even though the rest of the World Showcase opens at 11.
Get a fresh croissant or brioche and cafe au lait at the bakery, have a leisurely and uncrowded breakfast in “Paris” — then walk toward the United Kingdom.
Because there are no crowds, you can linger at the English Tea Garden and see and smell the topiaries up close.
United Kingdom is home to topiaries of Capt. Cook and Peter Pan, who soars atop a building, and Winnie the Pooh and other Pooh characters.
Sign up for one of the free tours of the tea garden at England’s Tea Caddy shop — they go fast! — and revel in how proper and civilized a theme park can be.
As Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary might say: It’s all quite charming!
Here are five new things to look for at the 23rd annual Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival…
Disney’s topiary boss, Eric Darden, knows he’s got one chance for a “wow” first impression, and this year, he scores with two new topiaries at the entrance to Epcot: Ranger Mickey, the famous mouse dressed in ranger gear to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service, and Donald Duck with his nephews, Huey, Dewie and Louie.
Darden says Ranger Mickey is his favorite since they did Pirate Mickey a while back. And the Donald topiary is something of an engineering marvel.
“We’ve never done Donald in a walking stance before,” Darden said.
Donald’s holding a stick, but that’s not for decoration — it’s part of the structure holding him up.
Also new this year: Frozen’s Elsa and Anna have been moved to Norway, the site of their upcoming ride, which is now under construction. (Hint: It’s going to be big. It already looks about three stories high.)
Epcot spends half the year throwing festivals — from the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival in the fall, to Holidays Around the World at Christmas, to spring’s Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, which was extended by 15 days this year.
As the festivals get longer, the man in charge of what guests eat and drink there, Dave Kesting, gets more creative.
His title is “festival proprietor,” which means he tastes lots of food. And beer, wine, liquor and hard cider.
He doesn’t repeat food and drink from one festival to another, but sometimes items that debut at Epcot festivals get so popular, they make it to regular Epcot menus.
Case in point: The Schöfferhofer grapefruit beer. This refreshing mix of half Schöfferhofer hefeweizen and half grapefruit juice debuted at the 2012 fest and was such a hit, it’s now sold in Germany every day.
Epcot’s the “golden ticket” to mass exposure to specialty drinks, Kesting says.
It’s like a giant focus group. If Disney-goers like a beer, it’s going places.
This year, two new outdoor kitchens capitalize on two trends: La Isla Fresca, featuring Caribbean food, and Cider House, showcasing all things cider, especially hard cider.
“Retro flavors are making a comeback,” Kesting says, “and that’s reinventing the hard soda and hard cider world.”
At the Cider House, you can try hard ciders in black cherry, blueberry and pear flavors — or mix the black cherry with a lager from Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, and you’ve created a Snakebite.
Kesting’s favorite food at this fest is the beef brisket burnt ends hash with white cheddar fondue and pickled jalapenos. That’s served at The Smokehouse: Barbecue and Brews, the most popular outdoor kitchen at the festival, in the American Adventure pavilion.
That’s also where you get that frozen lemonade with moonshine.
If you’re missing Downton Abbey already, and you lament the fact that you’ll never have TV tea with Violet, the Dowager Countess, again, take heart: You can go on a free tea-garden tour and try not to get too giddy.
As Violet would say: “At my age, one must ration one’s excitement.”
The 20-minute tour is held a few times a day. Check daily program schedules and get to the Tea Caddy in the United Kingdom to sign up as soon as the World Showcase opens.
You’ll learn about the history of Twinings of London and the plants that create its 300 varieties of tea, including new flavors each year.
The Flower & Garden concert series used to be called Flower Power, and it featured ’60s bands. Now it’s called Garden Rocks and features bands from four decades.
I confess, I have a fondness for those old Flower Power days, because my fave teen idol, Davy Jones, performed there for more than a decade. I’m consoled by the fact that my other faves, Peter Noone and the Herman’s Hermits, will be there April 1-3.
Also, the fabulous Darlene Love, who recently performed at the Duncan Theater in Lake Worth, is making her debut performance at Epcot on May 13-15.
Concerts are held each weekend in the America Gardens Theatre at 5:30, 6:45, and 8:00 p.m., and they’re free.
So, you’ve downed some moonshine and some black cherry hard cider. What’s next?
You can do what I did — stick with one fruit group.
I tried Avive peach sparkling wine with lunch — it’s available at Urban Farm Eats outdoor kitchen and the France pavilion — then sipped peach Moscato in Italy for happy hour.
For dessert? An “Ice Pop Grand Marnier Peach Cocktail” in France.
Any day that begins and ends in France is c'est magnifique.